NAME: Tony Ortega
COMPAMY Village Voice Media
POSITION: Editor in Chief Village Voice
Village Voice editor, Tony Ortega, may well go down in New York history as the man who hammered the final nails into the coffin of the once venerable alternative weekly.
And, as the man who used “junk science” from vested interest groups to make the sex trafficking of underage girls something much less than the national epidemic it is. All in defense of the sex ads on the Village Voice Media classified ad web site Backpage.com, the platform that props up the Phoenix-based company.
After being hand-picked by executive editor Michael Lacey for the job in 2007, Ortega dutifully said:
“It’s an incredible newspaper, an incredible opportunity, and something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time.”
Maybe Ortega, 50, should have qualified the statement by saying "was an incredible newspaper," for New Yorkers had long known that with the exception of a few reporters from the Voice's old guard, the paper was a far cry from the lively investigative and cultural institution it once was.
But what would Ortega really know of New York, let alone a newspaper that was intimately involved in the culture of the Big Apple? After all, he had spent a grand total of a year and a half in the city, prior to being appointed to his dream job.
And soon, Ortega got rid of the old guard too, presumably on orders from Lacey, for Ortega is nothing if not the consummate company man, whose main job at the Voice was to preside over layoffs.
Over the intervening years, he fired long-time investigative reporter Wayne Barrett whose colleague, Voice veteran Tom Robbins, quit in protest. More recently, Ortega fired J. Hoberman, the much-admired Voice film critic.
With those departures, in a flash, 50-plus years of New York institutional knowledge was out the door.
There were further Ortega-mandated firings which soon became an annual event as Phoenix desperately tried to get its sinking revenues in line with costs.
Ortega's pick as editor of the Voice had raised eyebrows in New York media circles, mostly because he had come from an obscure South Florida paper, where he was editor of the New Times Broward-Palm Beach weekly, one of the 13 papers that occupy the Village Voice Media stable.
He started his career with New Times (now Village Voice Media after the 2005 merger) at the then company flagship paper, the Phoenix New Times.
After a four-year stint as a staff writer, Ortega wrote for the New Times Los Angeles for three years before returning to become associate editor at the Phoenix New Times.
He then became managing editor of the New Times-owned The Pitch, in Kansas City, where he worked from 2003-2005 before becoming editor of the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Ortega - who emulates his boss Lacey with a foul and profane manner - one that exposes the faux-intellectual pose he strikes on his Twitter photo, has little familiarity, or knowledge, of what New York readers want from an alternative weekly.
Simply put, he doesn't know New York. He lived briefly in the city as a freshman at Columbia University in the early 1980s. A self-described “half-Mexican California kid,” he grew up attending public school in Los Angeles and Orange County before beginning his studies at the Ivy League school in 1981.
He left after just three semesters, in debt and disillusioned.
Recalling his days in New York, Ortega said: "I had a Mohawk at the time, and I remember riding the subway home at three in the morning from the Pep Lounge," in reference to the Peppermint Lounge nightclub.
After graduate studies and teaching English at the University of California Santa Cruz, he moved to Phoenix in 1995 and started with New Times.
Ortega - like many other Village Voice Media employees - stands accused of taking blood money at the expense of underage girls victimized by Backpage.com.
In defense of his Phoenix paymasters, he has commissioned stories for the Voice, as well as the other Village Voice Media publications, that attack widely held statistics on the scope of the national sex trafficking epidemic.
Unleashing his anger, a character defect which he shares with his boss, Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey, he belittles those who expose his dirty little secret, the upwards of $31 million a year that the company rakes in from the exploitation of women and girls through prostitution ads placed on Backpage.com.
CNN reporter Amber Lynn felt the wrath of Ortega after her expose of child prostitution and Backpage.com, aptly entitled “Uncovering America’s Dirty Little Secret.” Ortega was foaming at the mouth as he said:
“CNN leads the media’s mass paranoia. She has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media.” He criticized the broadcast as a “sensationalistic piece,” that he labeled “manipulative” as well as Lynn’s “involvement in a semireligious crusade.”
Contrary to the views of those who daily work in the trenches to battle juvenile sex trafficking. Ortega insists it is a small problem, conveniently focusing on arrest statistics, while knowing – as does law enforcement – that arrest figures are a mere fraction of the huge number of minors victimized by pimps on Backpage.com.
Ortega speciously claims that Village Voice research, using official law enforcement data, shows that underage prostitution arrests are closer to 800 per year for the entire country. But, the “research” the Voice produced is dwarfed by the numbers compiled by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice which estimates the number of prostitution arrests of persons under the age of 18 in the United States at about 1550 per year.
To the consternation of Ortega, a multitude of groups are fighting child prostitution and slavery including Groundswell (the social action group of the Auburn Theological Seminary), the Polaris Project “For A World Without Slavery”, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights “advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls”, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Organization for Women and a host of others as well as the National Association of Attorneys General , US Senators and Representatives and mayors from across the country.
And while he may claim that the opposition to Backpage.com is a small group of political activists and religious organizations, Ortega should take a look at the massive list of groups and activists that have organized in opposition to Backpage.com.
Now, a mostly silent Ortega is content to hide behind the flawed and agenda-laden story – all based on the junk science of talking heads – that occupies a prominent spot on the Village Voice Media homepage as well as on the Voice’s homepage and on the homepages of the 12 other titles that make up the company.
But there are plenty of experts that can annihilate the Ortega argument – as published and advertised by Village Voice Media – that, essentially, sex trafficking is a small problem.
Hofstra University published a study that claims there have been 11,268 human trafficking survivors in New York State alone since 2000. “We’re really just scratching the surface with our estimate,” Associate Professor Dr. Greg Maney said. “It really highlights how pervasive human trafficking is in the area and the scope of the tragedy.”
And that number includes only the survivors who have come forward. Maney said there are still many more left to be helped. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Finn, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University and Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York said the problem was how Village Voice harped on arrest statistics — just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade.
“It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests,” Finn said. She also said that Village Voice Media has “a vested interest in minimizing the problem.”
Vested interest, indeed.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a Village Voice Media executive who asked not to be identified, said that the Backpage.com ads go for about $10 each which produces at least one-seventh of the company’s annual revenue.
More recently, Ortega headed up another Voice story, this one taking issue with a New York Times story that exposed the Village Voice-Backpage.com charade. The writer, Nicholas Kristof, soon responded and refuted the faulty logic that Ortega's story was based on.
To make matters worse, on a visit to Ortega's alma mater, Cal. State-Fullerton, where he gave a speech to a sparsely-attended gathering, he was met by a throng of protesters who reviled him for profiting through the sex trafficking of minors.
In response to the protesters, a suddenly meek Ortega could only respond:
“They don’t really understand what is going on.”
That's Tony Ortega, defender of child sex trafficking and editor of what the Village Voice has sadly become.